By Noah Pollak
President Bush’s “speech Monday”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/07/20070716-7.html about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reminded me of an old joke: A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on an island with nothing to eat, and a can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can first.” And the economist says, “Assume a can opener.”
The Bush administration, along with most of those who have been involved in promoting Palestinian statehood, have been assuming a peace process since Israel won the Intifada, Yasser Arafat died, and Mahmoud Abbas became the PA president. But the fundamental characteristic of the post-Intifada era is the peace process’s otherworldliness, its detachment from facts on the ground, its salience among internationalists, journalists, and diplomats, but not among the people of Gaza or the West Bank. This era has been for the Palestinians one of settling into a new reality — one that has meant, for example, that the profound cultural and religious differences between the Arabs of Gaza and of the West Bank have at last imposed themselves as political realities. And this settling in has meant that the Palestinian territories are joining many other areas of the Middle East in being weak states, tribal regions where government authority is weak, corrupt, and disorganized, and the political leaders that westerners would like to work with have disturbingly little control over the factions within their territory. Palestinian nationalism and the Fatah mafia have never been weaker.
And so President Bush announced Monday that “First, we are strengthening our financial commitment.” And second, “we’re strengthening our political and diplomatic commitment” and “strengthening our commitment to helping build the institutions of a Palestinian state.” Bush continued, declaring that in order for a state to emerge, Palestinians
must match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror. The Palestinian government must arrest terrorists, dismantle their infrastructure, and confiscate illegal weapons — as the road map requires. They must work to stop attacks on Israel, and to free the Israeli soldier held hostage by extremists. And they must enforce the law without corruption, so they can earn the trust of their people, and of the world. Taking these steps will enable the Palestinians to have a state of their own. And there’s only way to end the conflict, and nothing less is acceptable.
This is a high bar, and given the track record of the kind of Palestinian governance that the world has witnessed since Yasser Arafat returned from exile in 1994, a preposterously, impossibly high bar. It is doubtful that President Bush or all but a few incredibly credulous people in his government believe that today, after what happened in Gaza last month, hundreds of millions more in aid money, or yet another international conference, will midwife a Palestinian state. Democratic nations are built from the inside out by single-minded, ambitious leaders working on behalf of a population that has internalized not just nationalist cultural beliefs, but the requirements of consensus-based majoritarian politics. Those characteristics have been evident among Palestinians in only the most desultory manner.
Thus it is difficult to believe that the administration’s latest maneuvers and declarations are earnestly directed at state-building. They are necessary and expedient because they satisfy important diplomatic constituencies, will help America in its other Middle East projects, and represent a general continuation of American policy toward the Palestinians that Bush declared in his “Rose Garden speech”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020624-3.html in June 2002. American goals since Hamas took Gaza must necessarily be modest, and directed at a new bottom line for the West Bank, a bottom line that America, Israel, Jordan, and even most Palestinians have a shared interest in protecting. And that is to prevent what happened in Gaza from happening in the West Bank, to ensure that Hamas’ ambition, fueled by Iranian money and leadership, finds no foothold in a geographic area that is more populous than Gaza and much more difficult for Israel — and Jordan — to contain.
And so the money and political attention that the world promises will come rushing into the West Bank are not likely to bring us any closer to a Palestinian state, but they might help the Abbas government consolidate its power: Salaries will be paid, militias will be armed, jobs will be created, and patronage networks will be built. All of this will hopefully be sufficient to prevent the West Bank from sliding toward complete internal collapse, toward Islamism, or both. In this way Fatah and the West Bank may be kept, in some kind of messy and largely unproductive manner, in the western diplomatic orbit. The peace process is dead. Long live the peace process.